Some very different schooldays, but none the worse for all that

School Days 1951-62, by Gordon Smith. Published by Gordon Smith.

I can close my eyes, go back 50 years or so and bring it all – or a great deal of it – to life again: the swings, the football and rounders on the pitch, the Geo, the bandie pool. Dandy and Beano on Friday, news and weather forecasts only on the wireless. Sillock fishing at the harbour, Guy Fawkes bon­fires, the playing parks; neep-stealing and “chickie-mellie” on dark evenings, Radio Luxembourg; sneaked cigarettes, lanes, da Street, twopence back on an empty Wirly bottle.

Out of school thenadays, bairns were territorial beings who didn’t mix much. I hasten to say that tribal warfare was very rare, but there was a lower Breiwick Road/Sletts gang and an upper Breiwick Road/Ronald Street gang, each with its own grassy pitch, swings, bonfire and habits. Only for com­mon interests such as sledging down Breiwick Road and Gullet’s Brae or enjoying the slide and roundabout in the new Playing Park, was there much mass con­tact.

Of course, by today’s standards bairns of the 1950s were deprived – no TV, computers, iPods, mobile phones, swimming pools or leisure centres. Family cars were rare, bikes less than ubiquitous. Nobody had much money to spare, and holidays away from home were seldom more than a country visit to relations. A trip sooth was akin to a voyage to the moon.

And yet, I’ve never met anyone of my generation who missed any of these “amenities” at the time. We were all too busy enjoying life and entertaining ourselves by other simpler but equally satisfying means.

Gordon Smith evokes these years vividly in his new book School Days 1951-62, a pretty full account of how a fairly typical young Lerwegian grew up in post-war Lerwick. Mind you, he gives us but a scant helping of classroom life, by comparison with his very detailed record of his out-of-school activities. This imbalance will be acknowledged by many readers of our generation, whose primary education of that era was seldom memorable apart from whatever bits of the three Rs we managed to ab­sorb.

The author is one of these rare souls who kept a diary, so the chronology of his passage through schooldays is exact and comprehensive, while the recorded events reflect his own priorities and interests. The sea, its doings and man’s doings upon it form the strong thread – I could almost say the anchor chain – that binds the book together throughout. Lerwick 50 years ago was a much busier port than today in terms of vessel activity, with scores of herring drifters and a numerous fleet of peerie seine-netters busily coming and going in summer, while hordes of fishing vessels of every European nation sought sheltered haven from winter storms. There was unending interest: Russians, Poles, Norwegians, gales, shipwrecks. For a boy there was honest money to be made by hook or by crook in an impecunious era – and a lot more casual holiday employment for teenagers than there is today. In a time with no organised water-based activities available to young people either in or out of school, Gordon nevertheless managed to grasp the few opportunities available to get afloat, to enjoy and learn, and gain the desire to follow his peers and elders in a seafaring career. His narrative concludes on 27th August 1962, the day he and George Sutherland boarded the training ship Dolphin in Leith docks together – “on a new course now, on a voyage called Life”.

For the author’s contemporaries, the book is a nostalgic voyage.

It will enlighten a younger generation of reader as to how the young life of their parents – or grandparents – was surviveable at all in the 1950s, let alone enjoyable. Gordon Smith has given us an honest and valuable picture of a time when creature comforts and indulgences were much rarer than today, and many would agree with him that life was none the worse. Having said that, there was one noticeable omission: a biographical fact I expected to encounter in its pages, but didn’t. Puffer doesn’t tell us how he got his nickname!

Charlie Simpson


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